Blight leads to crime. Drive through any of our city's blighted areas and you'll realize why it's not surprising that New Orleans' crime statistics are once again on the rise. Many neighborhoods remain infested with derelict and deserted structures, and many residents are too scared to call police for help. Under such circumstances, neglected areas quickly become the preferred hideouts of hardened thugs. NOPD knows this, and now the department wants to add urban planning to its crime-fighting arsenal.
At a recent meeting with the City Council, Police Chief Warren Riley referenced 60 houses throughout the city that he says should be demolished immediately because they are being used as shooting galleries for drug addicts and as weapons caches for dangerous criminals. Riley added that cops are working with Recovery Director Ed Blakely and the Office of Recovery and Development Administration (ORDA) on this issue.
That's a good start, but we think the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) should be cops' weapon of choice in this fight. More than any other city agency, NORA is poised to lead the recovery of blighted neighborhoods across New Orleans if the mayor will just turn loose funds that NORA needs to do its job.
NORA was created in 1968 as a state agency authorized to improve, develop, purchase and sell real estate in order to eliminate blight and carry out community improvement projects. The state Legislature also gave NORA the power to seize, or expropriate, properties legally declared blighted. In other words, unlike the more recently created recovery office, NORA was specifically designed to fight blight. Unfortunately, NORA remained underfunded for years. Post-Katrina, with millions in state and federal aid available for this fight, there's just no excuse for that.
After the storm, Mayor Ray Nagin seemed at least temporarily to recognize NORA's potential. He won legislative approval of changes that strengthened the agency and appointed a new board packed with prominent civic and business leaders of his choosing. Then he turned his back on them, despite repeated pleas to give them the money they need to do the job Nagin appointed them to do.
NORA remained dormant for months on end, and its board members grew increasingly frustrated at the mayor's failure to act. When Joseph Williams became executive director in early 2007, he inherited a staff of four far too few to take on the estimated 100,000 uninhabited homes in New Orleans.
Tapping outside assistance and money in the agency's reserves, Williams increased NORA's staff to 17 by the end of 2007. On the strength of a funding agreement the mayor signed in December 2007 and with the promise of more to come in 2008 NORA began expropriating blighted properties in target zones identified by Blakely in his $1.2 billion recovery plan. Nagin inked other key agreements with NORA in late December.
But the contracts don't all apply citywide. For example, one calls for NORA to begin assembling properties and alleviating blight near the proposed site of the LSU-VA Hospital in the Tulane/Gravier area. Another allows NORA to acquire and sell properties only within Blakely's 17 target zones but only on a "reimbursement" basis, which means NORA first has to come up with the money to buy properties, and then be reimbursed later.
NORA board chair Herschel Abbott says he's grateful for the funding NORA has received, but he recognizes NORA's ongoing dilemma: "We're starved for capital funds to expropriate properties, buy properties, renovate properties and put them back on the market." Here again, City Hall has the money.
The City Council can jump start a citywide anti-blight campaign by approving a $2 million loan to NORA from the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund. The fund, approved by voters via a tax millage, is dedicated to neighborhood improvement. Nothing improves a neighborhood more than getting rid of blighted houses. Moreover, properties brought back to life by NORA go on the tax rolls, making this a solid investment in New Orleans' future. If it gets the money, NORA has pledged to put 75 properties on the market every six months and NORA's founding legislation requires 23 percent of the recovered properties to be reserved for affordable housing.
NORA's most powerful weapon is its expropriation authority, but due process requirements can and probably will slow down that phase of the recovery process. Even so, NORA represents the city's best hope of eradicating blight and its contributions to the rising crime rate. Once NORA gets some traction on this front, it can inspire homeowners and investors who are waiting for signs of progress to return and invest in the city. And if, in the process, the violent crime rate goes down, that can only accelerate the pace of recovery.
For years, NORA has been a sleeping giant waiting for the chance to awaken and get to work. It's time to roust the agency from its slumber and turn it loose.